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Social activism can be tough

President Donald Trump may have used the power of social media to make his way into the White House, but now social media networks are showing that muscle can work for his opposition, too.

Last week, at least a million marchers came to Washington — sparked by a Facebook post from one woman with no history of activism. This weekend, the Internet exploded again in discussion about Trump’s travel suspension order, and many used social media to get together and protest the decision.

Twitter said that more than 25 million tweets were sent about the order – as compared to 12 million about Trump’s inauguration. Facebook said that its users generated 151 million “likes, posts, comments and shares” related to the ban, less than the 208 million interactions generated about the inauguration. The companies didn’t reveal how many of those were aimed at organising, but the social media calls to get people to protest are a testament to the power of these platforms to move people.

The real question, however, is whether this burgeoning new movement can avoid the fate of many so others kickstarted by the power of social networks – only to find that it’s much harder to make political change than to make a popular hashtag.

The Internet has had some major protest moments before, with mixed results. Each time, media outlets hailed each wave of protests as the start of a new era of the modern protest as hundreds, thousands – or even hundreds of thousands – of people used their social media accounts to sound off and organise. But even some of the largest networked movements, such as the Arab Spring of 2011 or Occupy Wall Street, fell short of many people’s expectations of how well they would ultimately achieve their goals.

These movements weren’t outright failures by any means. But, looking back, it’s clear that they did lose energy and momentum in the face of proposing policy solutions and changes to the government.

Many point to disorganisation in the Occupy Wall Street movement – which resisted formal leadership – as one reason that it had a smaller impact than some expected when protesters started their months-long camp-outs in New York and Washington, DC.

While some Occupy Wall Street protesters did try to organize, because the whole movement wasn’t speaking as one, it lost a lot of energy when it tried to move on to the next step.

Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who’s written a forthcoming book on the power and fragility of movements borne of social media, found in her research that the very ability for these movements to scale quickly is, in part, why they also can fall apart so quickly as compared to traditional grassroots campaigns.

That highlights the crucial difference between old social campaigns and new ones. Scale, even in the form of a huge protest, does not equal success.

It used to. “In the past, essentially, if you were going to organise a large scale protest you needed to be an organisation that already had chapters in multiple cities and an extensive email list,” said Evan Greer of Fight for the Future, which organises protests about tech policy issues, including a successful fight against copyright bills in 2012. “You needed a fairly large structure in place.”

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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